Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

30

BOULAINVILLIERS AND THE
RISE OF FRENCH DEISM

By the 1720s, the endeavours of Malebranche, Bossuet, Huet, Régis, Fénelon, Lamy, and innumerable others to break the vice of philosophical perplexity gripping France while simultaneously fending off scepticism, irreligion, and Naturalism could finally be seen to have failed. Neither Cartesianism nor its offshoot Malebranchisme, nor any indigenous French philosophical tradition survived beyond the first quarter of the new century as a serious contender in the fight to conquer the middle ground in what was increasingly an international war of philosophies. The patent contradictions and discrepancies undermining Aristotelianism, and the systems of Descartes and Malebranche, compelled those seeking viable answers to the intellectual issues of the age to turn either to English empiricism, the tradition of Bacon, Boyle, Locke, and Newton, as the young Voltaire and countless others were to do, or the Leibnizian–Wolffian model contending for hegemony in Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia. Alternatively, one might come to terms intellectually and spiritually with the unsettling and revolutionary ideas of the radicals and Spinosistes.

Some of the most enquiring minds of the French Early Enlightenment did indeed turn in this direction, including the second founding father—after Fontenelle—of the French Radical Enlightenment, the eminent, if reticent, Norman nobleman, Henri de Boulainvilliers (1658–1722), comte de Saint-Saire. Though it is sometimes claimed the count was at least residually a Catholic and not in any genuine sense a 'Spinosiste', recent research has invalidated this notion, proving he did develop into a fully-fledged Spinozist who rejected not just revealed religion but all notion of a providential God and an absolute morality.1 He was to exert during his last years, and still more posthumously, a remarkable influence on the dissemination of radical ideas throughout western Europe.

Boulainvilliers was educated at the Oratorian college at Juilly, north-east of Paris, at a time when the college was strongly Cartesian in orientation, among others, during his final year as a teacher there (1673), by Richard Simon.2 Subsequently, he served for

1 Simon. 'Introduction', p. xii; Simon, Henry de Boulainviller, 533, 684; Wade, Clandestine Organisation, 123;
Torrey, 'Boulainvilliers', 162–2; Vernière, Spinoza, 306–62; Schröder, Ursprünge, 506; for the two most author-
itative recent analyses see Brogi, Cerchio, 164–414, and Venturino, Ragioni, 143–38.

2 Venturino, Ragioni, 4.

-565-

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